Mike Czaja still doesn't have his license, but that doesn't stop him from hitting 150 on the straightaway.
The Gazette last met Czaja in 2007. Back then, he was one of the top go-cart racers in the province, and had just become the youngest person ever to participate in the SuperKarts USA SuperNationals tournament. He was also thinking about learning to drive a car.
Now, the fast-talking 17-year-old Bellerose Composite student is ripping down Sturgeon County's Stratotech raceway in a cool blue replica of a 1934 Ford Coupe. The tiny, shiny car farts and bangs its way through the corners, recalling the sounds and smells of ancient motor-sports, then blasts down the straightaway at thoroughly modern speeds of some 150 kilometres an hour.
This Saturday, Mike will become the youngest semi-pro driver on the Alberta Legends circuit as he roars through his first race at the Edmonton International Raceway. He still won't have his license.
He's been too busy racing to get it, he explains, smiling. "I haven't even had time to take driver's training." Not that he minds, he adds. "I like having someone to drive me around so I can save it for the track."
Starting the legend
Mike rolls into the pit after a few practice laps. He looks comparatively gigantic as he steps out of the clown-car-sized Legends racer (which are based on the cars people raced in the 1930s). This was only his second time behind the wheel, he says, and he feels fantastic. "I want to do some doughnuts!"
"Nah," says his father, Ed Czaja. "Win a race first, then you can do doughnuts."
Ed, himself a drag racer, has been managing his son's racing career since the beginning. The two of them started racing go-carts at Stratotech after they saw a demonstration of them at the 2000 Molson Indy. Mike was 10 at the time.
After winning several races and becoming the provincial Senior Rotax champ, Mike says he felt a need to move up in the racing world. "Carting gets you noticed and that's it," he says. If you want the big crowds, challenge and prizes, you have to head to Formula One or stock car racing.
Last fall, he says, the two of them took a Legends car for a spin at a training course at the suggestion of their associate, Aaron Friend, who was last year's northern Alberta Legends champ. They knew they had found their calling when Mike managed to stay neck-and-neck with Aaron throughout one of the heats. "We kind of smiled and said, 'We have got to do this.'"
In the bucket
The two of them picked out their $18,000 car awhile later. Sitting inside for the first time was bizarre, Mike says. "It was the first time I'd experienced mirrors." Unlike a go-cart, the car also had seatbelts, a roll-cage, and about four times as much horsepower, enabling it to hit speeds of about 150 kilometres an hour.
It also had a larger, more comfortable seat. Normally, these need to be customized for each driver, but Mike says it fit like a glove right off the bat — perhaps another sign that this was the sport for him.
The actual driving is similar to carting, says Friend, speaking in his light Australian accent, except that you don't turn to the right. Unlike carting, Legends is usually raced on an oval track.
Both carting and Legends see drivers power-sliding through turns and riding bumper-to-bumper with opponents. Canadians tend not to ram each other out of the way like the Americans, he says, but they come close. "You couldn't slide a piece of paper between us."
Both also emphasize heat management. You need to make smooth turns to keep your tire temperature in check, Mike says. If you don't, the wheels start to liquefy and the car feels like it's driving on butter. The inside of the car also gets very hot. The exhaust system runs right under your butt, and there's no air-conditioner in the bare-bones cockpit. "You're basically baking by the end of the night." Aaron recalls how he once drove a race with his door half-open simply to cool down.
Driver skill is far more important in Legends, Friend says. Carting allows for a lot of engine customization, so you'll often see drivers swapping out (or blowing up) engines and tires between heats for the best possible performance. "You get a lot of chequebook racing," he says, where the team with the most money wins. Legends cars must meet comparatively strict standards, he says; if you want to push the envelope here, you have to work on the driver, not the engine.
Also important is on-track respect, Mike says. While a certain amount of contact is expected, rookies like himself are expected to defer to veterans should they come charging in from behind. "If a leader's coming by, I don't want him to put me into the wall." Likewise, if you know a fellow racer needs a few points to qualify, it's common courtesy to let him or her pass.
Watching the mirrors, monitoring your RPMs and listening to the race announcer in your earpiece at about 100 kilometres an hour drives most drivers into a state of ecstatic terror, Friend says. "It's so weird," he says — your mind is a blank, but is also taking in loads of information at once. "I've always termed it the best drug in the world," he jokes.
Crashes do happen, Mike says, but aren't nearly as dangerous as they are in carting. "If someone hits you, it's nice knowing that their entire cart won't be in your lap." Drivers also wear fireproof suits in case they are trapped inside a burning wreck.
The cheque-ered flag
Unlike carting, Mike adds, Legends racers can expect thousands of fans at every race as well as prizes of up to $10,000. Even last-place racers walk away with a few hundred bucks. "There are fans there, the people are cheering, the kids come down … it's real racing."
You also need a lot more money to get into the sport, Ed says — racers can expect to spend about $15,000 a year just on maintenance and entry fees. "Sponsorship is vitally important when competing in any form of auto race now," he says. "Whereas before this was your sponsor," he continues, patting his back pocket. Large yellow logos advertising motor oil additives cover Mike's car.
Mike could become very successful on the Legends circuit if he sticks with it, Friend says. "He's a very dedicated racer, and how far he goes is completely dependent on [him]. He's got all the natural ability anyone could hope for."
But the sluggish economy has made finding sponsors tough, Mike says, and that could throw a wrench into his racing career. "It hurts knowing that this could stop due to money." If it comes down to it, though, he'll shelve his plans to join NASCAR and find another line of work — firefighting, perhaps.
"If I can't get that rush in carting or Legends, I've got to get it somewhere else or I'll explode!" he says, laughing.
This weekend's race starts at 5:30 p.m. in Wetaskiwin. For details, see www.legendscars.ca.